Wednesday, November 05, 2008

and so it begins

The mantra seems to be that we as a people have again affirmed the American Dream narrative in a new and rather more significant way: that anyone can indeed become anything, whatever they want, in this country. Well, that plays well. An oldie but a goodie, and everyone knows how to dance to that tune, so I reckon we should just go with it.

But for me personally, the major achievement represented by the election of a man named Barack Hussein Obama is somewhat different than the above. I just heard an exchange on MSNBC with some guy named Tucker Carlson who kept insisting that celebrating the election as "historic" (meaning, it's important that we have elected our first African-American president) tends toward the implication that all those who didn't vote for Obama now find themselves on "the wrong side of history" (an interesting new euphemism employed in this conversation to avoid using the blunt label, "racist"--because despite it all, we still cannot discuss race and racism in this country without euphemisms). Carlson insisted on also at the same time interpreting the election in pragmatic terms--that many people did not self-consciously cast "a historic vote" but simply a vote for the candidate that they agreed with, whose policies they judged to be right for the country, so that people "on the wrong side of history" aren't made to feel like racists.

I think he's right at the same time that he's wrong.

The real achievement of this election is that people did cast a pragmatic vote for the candidate they agreed with, whose policies they judged to be better for the country--and that this judgment could be made across multiple demographics without necessary reference to the identity category of "African-American." To separate the pragmatic from the historic vote is a mistake, because it misses the point that up till now, a black man was always black first, and then whatever else second. Now we have proven--not just to the world, but to ourselves as a country--that we can put aside the category, the label, the box, and make a judgment based on more than that.

This is the real achievement of the campaign itself, and it would have stood as monumental even with a loss at the end of it, though it would have been harder to see, and harder to celebrate, without the final vindication of a win.

I'm not saying that it doesn't matter that Obama is the son of a black Kenyan and a white Kansan. It does--but it doesn't matter in the same way that it would matter in the old, constricting framework of identity politics as usual. He didn't win because he was black. Neither did he win despite being black. I think enough Americans experienced the breakthrough that this fact of his biography did not preclude a common vision, did not mean that he could never see from a white person's point of view, that a white person could never see from a black, or Hispanic-, or Asian-American, or even international point of view. We can, at least in part, if we choose to try. We can relocate our gaze, in a gesture of kinship. This is the change that has become real, because we finally believed enough in the possibility to choose it.


JTB said...

"our stories are singular but our destinies are shared."

Wow! It's like he was channelling Haraway!!!

(and I am such a nerd.)

Porter said...

Yes, this is so true. I'm really glad you pointed this out.

A discussion or two I've had with people came to, "it doesn't *matter* that he's black - that's stupid to factor in". I hear myself saying similar things with similar emphasis. I think in part I'm proud to display my appropriate perspective on the matter and quite proud that that would be the social norm, and also I think there's a bit of cover-up on some previous biases I feel I or my friends, family, and culture have had in some way or another.

If it can be obvious how insane such a racial bias would be, then perhaps I never had any, or am so healed as to be totally removed from it.

Vasca said...

I'm foolish and like to think people vote for those they believe to have the best interest of our country as their reason for desiring an office. (Stop with the laughing) This country is a hodge-podge of nationalities and name it, the USA's got it...we the people have an inordinate hodge-podge of ideals and's great when we pull together...a gigantic mess when we don', let's get together and do it...!

Anonymous said...

JTB, I agree, very well put.